Francis Chan has two laughs, and both are infectious.
One is a chuckle that reveals his capricious nature and wit. The other is an uproarious guffaw, reserved for moments when he finds something unusually funny, comically embarrassing, or just plain odd. The 41-year-old Hong Kong native has a number of parallel ministries.
The first, Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California, Chan started in 1993. The prestigious ex-urban city north of Los Angeles and just east of Ventura Beach attracts an upper middle class of Starbucks regulars. Today Cornerstone runs four services on Sundays, and Chan's preaching has attracted about 4,000 regular attendees who come to multiple campuses in the L.A. area. Its main church campus matches the Spanish mission style of the surrounding homes. Inside are few accoutrements—a small stage with a baptismal font, no banners or stained-glass windows, and no pulpit.
Chan's second ministry is less visible but more audible: weekly Simi Valley sermons that attract a worldwide audience of tens of thousands. His sermons consistently rank in the top 20 Christian podcasts on iTunes, in a group that includes Mark Driscoll and John Piper. In 2005, he spoke at his first Passion Conference, and since then has spoken at conferences almost every week (30 so far in 2009).
Chan's speaking style may be informal and punctuated with humor, but he constantly presses his listeners to be completely devoted to Christ. In an Easter 2008 message, Chan told a story about a young woman who was dating a man who said he was waiting to see how their relationship panned out. Chan told his listeners they should not act like that toward God. If you are here on Easter, he said, because you think this "God thing" might turn out okay, don't bother—God is looking for people who are fully committed and eager to serve him.
As Chan puts it, "Churches we build only by our own efforts and not in the strength of the Spirit will quickly collapse when we don't push and prod people along."
Chan's third ministry is writing. His first book, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God, argues for a ruthlessly authentic form of Christianity, and has sold 350,000 copies since it released in spring 2008. His newest, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, hit bookstores in September.
Despite what is clearly a flourishing ministry, Chan remains an anomaly. He lives in a tract house in one of Simi Valley's down-and-out suburbs with his wife and four children. He rides a 1995 Honda Elite scooter to work. An avid surfer, he emits a laid-back Californian coolness.
According to one comment he made in a sermon, Chan gives away about 90 percent of his income (though his church administrator preferred the phrase "most of his income"). Chan doesn't take a salary from his church, and his book royalties, which total about $500,000, mostly go to organizations like International Justice Mission, which rescues sex slaves in foreign countries. The Chans often open their home to families who need a place to stay. One of Cornerstone's community pastors, Bill Lucas, lived with Chan for nine months, and says he "lives out what he says."
In an age that is cynical about religious leaders, the Chans' lifestyle no doubt helps to explain why the pastor has attracted so many listeners and readers. There is also his restlessness to bring others to a relationship with Christ, even if it means starting all over again.
From Hong Kong to Simi Valley
Ask anyone at Cornerstone what has most shaped Chan, and they will likely talk about his early childhood. Chan's mother, Moy Won Chan, died while giving birth to him in 1968 in Hong Kong. He spent his formative years in Hong Kong living under the strict parenting of his father, Paul, who would, as Chan writes in Crazy Love, beat him for "disobeying or bothering" him, though he says it taught him discipline and respect. Paul remarried when Chan was about 7 years old, and moved the family to California. Chan's stepmother died in a car accident shortly thereafter; then, when Chan was in junior high school, his father died of cancer.